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Olive oil on shelves may no longer be fresh

The Harsh Reality Of The Olive Oil Industry

Containers of olive oil on table

containers of olive oil on table
Apomares/Getty Images


By Xan Indigo

May 28, 2023 11:30 am EST


In 2023, Starbucks released its latest coffee drink, the Oleato, made with a generous spoonful of extra virgin olive oil. Unfortunately, the drink has reportedly given some people stomach issues, thanks to the combination of caffeine, a stimulant, and olive oil, a relaxant, having a laxative effect. This is, however, no fault of the oil itself, at least in terms of quality. The brand used by Starbucks is Partanna, an award-winning oil often ranked among the world’s finest. With less reputable olive oil brands, however, it can be a lot harder to be certain that the oil you’re buying is what it claims to be.

Olive oil is ostensibly separated into a few different grades, with the USDA using roughly the same definitions as the rest of the world. The highest grade, with its fruity aroma and taste, is extra virgin olive oil. The lowest grade isn’t actually fit for human consumption without processing and is not typically used in foods. A problem lies in the fact that, in the U.S., olive oil has no national quality standard, and the FDA offers little specific guidance on the matter — despite calls for better regulation. The result is that it’s surprisingly easy for fraudulent olive oil to make its way onto grocery store shelves, and even the genuine stuff may have been produced through uncomfortably shady means. Like many others, this industry hides some dark secrets.

Olive oil has a long history of fraud

Olive oil in a grocery store
Olive oil in a grocery store- Lordhenrivoton/Getty Images

Counterfeit olive oil may seem like a strange idea, but it’s been a problem for far longer than you might realize. And that problem has, on occasion, been a severe one. In 2016, it was estimated that as much as 80% of the Italian olive oil on the market in the U.S. was fake. In the EU, olive oil is consistently one of the most polluted food products, with even the more expensive oils on the market sometimes being high-effort fakes. Olive oil is often adulterated with cheaper oils like sunflower or canola. The latter is especially concerning, considering that canola allergies are not uncommon.

Olive oil fraud has seemingly been a problem since ancient times, with the Romans having extensive checks to prevent oil from being stolen or counterfeited. Centuries later, in the 1990s, adulterated olive oil was the most common agricultural fraud in the EU. In 2007, according to The New Yorker, the practice was widespread enough that it began to threaten the livelihoods of honest olive growers. By the 2010s, the fraudsters were so openly adulterating oil that it sparked protests from farmers.

By far the most damaging olive oil fraud, however, happened in 1981. As Reuters reports, a batch of oil sold to the public as olive oil was actually canola oil. Even worse, this oil was intended for industrial use and had been denatured with 2% aniline, a severely toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemical. It had such harmful effects that it left 300 people dead and many others permanently disabled.

Olive oil helps fund the Mafia

Olive oil bottles in a factory
Olive oil bottles in a factory- Bloomberg/Getty Images

Food-related fraud is often the realm of organized crime, and olive oil is a favorite target of the Mafia. Known as “agromafia” in Italy, it’s a big earner, bringing in over $16 billion in 2016. The usual method, as the Olive Oil Times explains, is to blend real extra virgin olive oil with cheaper olive oil grades. The adulterated oil is then mislabelled and sold. Any farmers attempting to expose the problem are met with violence in retaliation. Much of the fake oil is sold to markets in the U.S., with one American bestseller found to be cut with lampante oil — an olive oil grade unfit for food, traditionally considered only good enough to burn in oil lamps.

In 2017, an Italian police operation broke a major Mafia ring that was shipping cheap mislabelled oil to the U.S. Unfortunately, this was seemingly only a minor setback. The following year, agromafia activities were still on the rise in Italy. As a result, per CBS, a few guidelines were released to help American consumers avoid buying poor-quality oil. Buying olive oil from California is an option, as is buying Italian oil online, direct from the producers. For oil on supermarket shelves, an important piece of advice is to check the label to look for a region known for producing olive oil, like Puglia or Sicily. Unfortunately, though, even regions like these are not guaranteed free from corruption.

Migrant workers are exploited to grow olives

Olive tree in Sicily
Olive tree in Sicily- Le-gals Photography/Getty Images

Sicily produces about 10% of Italy’s olive oil and is home to hundreds of presses. It’s also the original home of the Mafia, and they’re still active there to this day, including in a migrant camp near the town of Campobello di Mazara. According to InfoMigrants, this dangerous and unsanitary site is nestled among Sicily’s olive groves, and police are afraid to set foot there. Hundreds of migrants arrive there every year, often without proper documentation, working for black market gangmasters. Frequently coming from Africa, these people compare their conditions to a form of slavery. Living areas are squalid, and they’re made to work even in sweltering heat for wages that are only a fraction of the legal minimum wage. Puglia, reportedly, is home to similar migrant camps.

Migrant farm workers face similarly inhumane conditions in Spain, the world’s largest olive oil producer, where they’re also put to work picking other fruit such as strawberries and tomatoes. According to Ethical Consumer, there are nine basic workers’ rights, and some farms in Spain frequently break eight of them. Working excessive hours in unsafe conditions, migrant workers are severely underpaid. Their wages may be refused, their passports may be confiscated, and some face sexual abuse and harassment. Workers who attempt to speak out by joining unions or going on strike are promptly and unfairly fired, making many afraid to do so.

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